Film Review: Woodstock (dir by Michael Wadleigh)


A few nights ago, as I watched the 1970 documentary Woodstock, I thought to myself, “Goddamn, this is a long movie…”

Just how long Woodstock is depends on which version that you watch.  The original version, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary and which was also nominated for Best Editing (the first nomination ever for the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker), had a running time of little over three hours.  The version that I watched was the “director’s cut,” which clocks in at close to four hours.  Of course, since Woodstock was shot over the course of a three-day music festival, it could have been even longer.  32 acts performed at Woodstock but only 14 of them appeared in the original version of the film.  (By including footage of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Canned Heat, the director’s cut increases that number to 17.)

As for the music that does appear in the film, your reaction is going to depend on how much you like the music of the late 60s.  Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Ten Years After are all brilliant but, at the same time, you also have to deal with Joan Baez rambling about her imprisoned husband and singing perhaps the smuggest version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ever recorded.  Watching Crosby Stills & Nash perform, I was reminded of every boring grad student that I’ve ever known while John Sebastian’s stage patter sounded almost like a parody of hippie shallowness.  I would say that Woodstock was a perfect example of why the rockers are better remembered than the folk singers, except for the fact that my favorite musical performance in the film comes from Arlo Guthrie:

That said, Woodstock really isn’t about the music.  That may sound like a strange thing to say, considering that almost every concert film made since owes a debt to Woodstock but really, the most interesting parts of the film aren’t the performances.  Instead, it’s the interviews with the people involved, not only the concertgoers themselves but also the citizens of the nearby town of Bethel, New York.  Some of the people interviewed as very positive about the sudden hippie invasion.  Quite a few others are not.  One older man seems to be more concerned with working on his car than anything else.  Like any good documentary, Woodstock provides a record of the time when it was made.  As much as I like music, I absolutely love history and, to me, that’s the main appeal of Woodstock.  Watching the film is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and experience an age that I would otherwise never get a chance to know.

Whenever I watch Woodstock, I’m always struck by the fact that I probably would not have enjoyed it as much as some of the people who attended.  I have a feeling that I’d be like that poor girl who is spotted about halfway through the film, crying about how it’s too muddy and crowded.  I always cringe a little when I see everyone bathing in the same dirty pond.  (A young Martin Scorsese worked on the film and reportedly spent the entire festival wearing an immaculate white suit.  That’s something that I would have liked to have seen.)  And yet, at the same time, I just find the documentary fascinating to watch.  I always find myself wondering what became of the people who were interviewed in the film.  How many of the hippies are still hippies and how many of them eventually ended up working on Wall Street?  Did the cranky guy working on his car even bother to see the film?  (It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t.  Movies, especially movies about a bunch of stoned hippies, really didn’t seem to be his thing.)  To me, questions like those are what makes a movie like this fascinating.

As an event, the original Woodstock is often cited as being the best moment of the 60s counterculture.  (30 years later, the 1999 Woodstock would be remembered as one of the worst moments in the history of both music and American popular culture.)  As a film, Woodstock is undeniably optimistic that the people who braved the rain and the mud so that they could see Joan Baez would somehow manage to build a new society.  Still, sharp-eyed viewers will note a hint of what was to come.  One of the first people interviewed in the documentary is a local shopkeeper.  As he speaks, a newspaper can be seen over his shoulder.

The headline reads: “Sharon’s Pals Balk At Probe,” a reference to the investigation into the murder of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and his followers.  Seen today, that headline serves as a reminder that, even at the time it was occurring, the peaceful promise of the original Woodstock would be short lived.

 

Film Review: Barabbas (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Who was Barabbas?

The simple answer to that is that Barabbas was the prisoner who, according to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate released during Passover.  As the story goes, Pilate gave the people the choice.  He could either release Barabbas or Jesus.  For what crime was Barabbas being held?  The Gospel of Matthew merely says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark and Luke both write that he was involved in a recent riot and that he was a murderer.  The Gospel of John refers to him as being a bandit, which may have been another term for revolutionary.  Regardless of what crime he had committed, the people overwhelmingly called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  What happened to Barabbas after he was set free is not recorded but has been the subject of a good deal of speculation over the centuries.

(Of course, there are some scholars who believe that the Barabbas story was simply an invention of later writers, designed to shift the responsibility for the crucifixion away from the Romans.  There’s also some who say that Jesus and Barabbas were actually the same person and that the inclusion of the Barabbas story was meant to indicate that Jesus was actually a revolutionary who was working to free Judea from Roman role.  I imagine Dan Brown will eventually base a novel on this theory, so look forward to hearing your grandma debating the historicity of Barabbas at some point in the future.)

Back to the original question, who was Barabbas?

According to the 1961 film of the same name, Barabbas was Anthony Quinn.

Based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author, Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas opens with Pilate (Anthony Kennedy) making his infamous offer.  Barabbas or Jesus?  Perhaps the only person more shocked than Pilate by the people’s decision is Barabbas himself.  A brutish and violent man, Barabbas is looking forward to returning to his old life but, as he leaves the prison, he finds himself fascinated by the sight of Jesus stoically carrying the cross, heading to the fate that Barabbas was spared.  Later, Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and is shaken when, upon Jesus’s death, the sky turns black.

(Director Richard Fleischer shot the Crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, so that the sky actually did turn black during filming.  It’s a stunning scene.)

For the rest of his life, Barabbas is haunted by both his narrow escape from death and his subsequent notoriety.  When Barabbas tries to reunite with his former lover, Rachel (Silvana Mangano), he discovers that not only does she now want nothing to do with him but that she has also become a follower of Jesus.  (Later, in a surprisingly graphic scene, Rachel is stoned to death.)  Barabbas becomes convinced that he cannot die and he becomes increasingly reckless in his behavior.  Over the next few decades, he finds himself sold into slavery and forced to spend 20 years working in the harsh sulfur mines of Sicily.  He befriends a Christian named Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, with him, is trained to be a gladiator by the sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance).  Eventually, Barabbas finds himself rejected by both the Romans and the Christians while Rome burns all around him.

Barabbas is a film that really took me by surprise.  I’ve seen a lot of Biblical and Roman films from the 50s and 60s and I was expecting that Barabbas would be another sumptuously produced but slow-paced epic, one that would inevitably feature stiff dialogue and overly reverential performances.  I mean, don’t me wrong.  I happen to love spectacle and therefore, I enjoy watching most of those old historical and religious epics.  But still, for modern audiences, these films can often seem rather … well, hokey.

But Barabbas was totally different from what I was expecting.  As wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas wanders through most of the film in a state of haunted confusion.  Even at the end of the film, after he’s met St. Peter (Harry Andrews), Barabbas doesn’t seem to fully understand what he believes or how he’s become one of the most notorious men in Rome.  Quinn plays Barabbas almost like a wild animal, one that has been cornered and trapped by his own infamy.  The more Barabbas struggles against his fate, the more trapped he becomes.  Barabbas may be a brute but, the film suggests, even a brute can find some sort of redemption.  Quinn gets good support from the entire supporting cast.  Jack Palance is perfectly evil as Torvald while Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, and Ernest Borgnine bring some needed nuance to characters who, in lesser hands, could have just been cardboard believers.

Barabbas is a surprisingly dark film.  When Rachel is stoned, the camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how cruel an execution that was.  Nor does the camera flinch from the violent brutality of the gladiatorial games.  When Barabbas is sold into slavery, the sulfur mines of Sicily are depicted in Hellish detail and practically the only thing that saves Barabbas from spending the rest of his life being smothered under a cloud of sulfur is a giggly Roman woman who decides to buy Barabbas so that he can serve as a good luck charm.  The scenes of Barabbas’s skill of a gladiator are contrasted with the bloodthirsty crowd demanding and cheering death.  Even when Barabbas joins the Christians in the Roman catacombs, he discovers that they want nothing to do with him, suggesting that they believe in forgiveness for everyone but him.  The spectacle of Rome is displayed but so is the terror of what lies underneath the city’s ornate surface.  If Barabbas is occasionally a ruthless or unsentimental character, one need only look at the world he lives in to understand why.

With the exception of a few slow scenes at the start of the film, director Richard Fleischer does a good job of keeping the action moving.  It’s a long film but it never becomes a boring one.  In the end, thanks to Quinn’s performance and the film’s unflinching portrayal of life in ancient Rome, Barabbas is a biblical epic for people who usually don’t like biblical epics.

 

Finally, you may rest in peace


cracked rear viewer

Abigail Folger (1943-1969)

Wojciech Frykowski (1936-1969)

Gary Hinman (1934-1969)

Leno (1925-1969) and Rosemary (1930-1969) LaBianca

Steven Parent (1951-1969)

Jay Sebring (1933-1969)

Donald “Shorty” Shea (1933-1969)

Sharon Tate (1943-1969)

Paul Richard Polanski (unborn)

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man (dir by Martin Ritt)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take a while.  She recorded this 1962 literary adaptation off of FXM on January 30th!)

Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man is one of those films that you just know was made specifically to win Oscars.  It’s a big prestige production, complete with a historical setting, an epic scope and big, all-star cast.  That most of those stars appear in relatively small roles was undoubtedly meant to evidence of the film’s importance.

“Look!” the film seems to shout at times, “This is such an important film that even Paul Newman was willing to stop by for a day’s work!”

The film is based on ten short stories by Ernest Hemingway and, loosely, A Farewell to Arms.  The stories all dealt with the early life of Nick Adams, who was a literary stand-in for Hemingway.  Since the Nick Adams stories were autobiographical (and, for that matter, so was A Farewell to Arms), the film can also be viewed as biopic.  Richard Beymer (who, a year earlier, had starred in West Side Story and who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) may be playing Nick Adams but the film leaves little doubt that he was actually meant to be playing Ernest Hemingway.

The film opens with Nick hunting with his father, Dr. Harold Adams (Arthur Kennedy).  He is present when his father travels to an Indian camp and helps to deliver a baby.  He respects his father but Nick wants to see the world and the film follows him as he explores America, working odd jobs and meeting colorful characters along the way.  Paul Newman shows up as a punch-drunk boxer and proceeds to overact to such an extent that he reminded me of Eric Roberts appearing in a Lifetime film.  Nick meets rich men, poor men, and everything in between.  He works as a journalist.  He works as a porter.  Eventually, when World War I breaks out, Nick enlists in the Italian army and the film turns into the 100th adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

And really, I think it would have been an enjoyable film if it had been directed by someone like Otto Preminger, George Stevens, or maybe even Elia Kazan.  These are directors who would have embraced both the pulpy potential of the Nick Adams stories and the soapy melodrama of the war scenes.  A showman like Preminger would have had no fear of going totally and completely over the top and that’s the approach that this material needed.  Instead, Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man was directed, in a painfully earnest style, by Martin Ritt.  Ritt tries to imitate Hemingway’s famously understated style with his understated direction but, cinematically, it’s just not very interesting.  Ritt portrays everything very seriously and very literally and, in the end, his direction is more than a little dull.

Sadly, the same can be said for Richard Beymer’s performance in the lead role.  Beymer comes across as being the nice guy who everyone says you should marry because he’ll be able to get a good and stable job and he’ll probably never go to jail.  Two months ago, when I watched and reviewed Twin Peaks, I really loved Beymer’s performance as Ben Horne.  He just seemed to be having so much fun being bad.  Unfortunately, in Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man, he never seemed to be having any fun at all.  No wonder he temporarily put his film career on hold so that he could fully devote himself to working as a civil rights activist.

In the end, this is a movie that’s a lot more fun to look at than to actually watch.  Visually, the film is frequently quite pretty in an early 1960s prestige movie so sort of way.  And there are some good performances.  Eli Wallach, Ricardo Montalban, Susan Strasberg, Arthur Kennedy — there’s a whole host of performers doing memorable supporting work.  Unfortunately, even with all that in mind, this well-intentioned film largely falls flat.

Film Review: Valley of the Dolls (dir. by Mark Robson)


(Photograph by Erin Nicole Bowman)

(Warning: This review contains spoilers.  A lot of them.)

Last week, I posted a poll and I asked you, the Shattered Lens readers, which film I should watch on March 20th and then subsequently review.  You voted and the winner was the classic 1967 trashfest, Valley of the Dolls.

Based on a best-selling (and trend-setting) novel by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls starts out with a disclaimer that informs us that the story we’re about to see is totally fictional and purely imaginative.  That disclaimer is probably the funniest part of the entire film as Valley of the Dolls is notorious for being one of the first films dedicated to showing middle America just how miserable and screwed up those famous show business types truly are.  As such, the main reason for watching a movie like this is so you can sit there and compare the cinematic troubles of a character like Neely O’Hara to the true-life troubles of an actress like Lindsay Lohan.  Valley of the Dolls tells the story of three aspiring stars who, as they find fame, also find themselves dealing with heartbreak, insanity, and dolls.  No, not the type of dolls that my mom used to collect.  These “dolls” are a bunch of red pills that do everything from keeping you thin to keeping you awake and focused.  (Though the pills are never actually called anything other than “dolls,” they appear to be the same pills that I take for my ADD.)   

The least interesting of our three heroines is Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins).  Unfortunately, Anne is also pretty much the center of the rather draggy first hour of the film.  Anne is a walking cliché, a naive girl from a small town in New England who moves to New York, gets a room at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women, and a job at a local theatrical agency.  “I want to have a marriage like mom and dad…but not yet!”  Anne breathlessly tells us.  Anne eventually ends up as the mistress of Lyon Burke (played by Paul Burke), a writer-turned-theatrical-agent who you know has to be a cad because his name is Lyon Burke and he takes Anne’s virginity but then refuses to marry her afterward.  Anne eventually becomes a model and finds fame as the face of Gilligan Hairspray but she soon finds herself forced to watch as her two best friends travel down a path of self-destruction.

Anne is the film’s token “good girl” and, as such, she’s rather bland and boring.  However, her character is interesting when considered as a symbol for the confused sexual politics of the time.  Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967, at a time when Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to deal with the emerging counter-culture.  The end result? A lot of rather old-fashioned films that were full of jarringly out-of-place counter-culture moments.  By the time Valley of the Dolls came out, it was allowable to acknowledge that a single girl might actually have sex but she still had to, at the very least, feel an unbelievable amount of angst about it.  That certainly is the case with Anne.  Watching the film today, it’s hard to understand just what exactly Anne’s feeling guilty about.  Lyon isn’t married.  Anne finds success even as she pursues her relationship with him.  Up until the final half of the film (at which point the morality of the time demands that both Anne and Lyon suddenly start acting totally out-of-character), Lyon treats her with about as much respect as you could probably expect to get from a man in the 1960s.  And yet, Anne can’t feel complete simply because Lyon is hesitant about marrying her.  When she and Lyon finally do make love, they do it with the lights off so the only thing the viewer sees are two shadowy figures holding each other.  Following the film’s logic, if the lights had been left on, the character of Anne would have had to have been punished later in the film for allowing the audience to see too much of her.

When Anne first comes to New York, she befriends two actresses.  The more tragic of the two is Jennifer North (played by Sharon Tate, who would be tragically murdered two years after this film came out), an insecure blonde who is valued more for her body than her talent.  Jennifer spends her spare time doing bust exercises (“To hell with them!” she declares at one point as she glares down at her chest, “Let ’em droop!”) and dealing with phone calls from her mother, demanding that Jennifer send her money.  Jennifer eventually ends up marrying a singer named Tony (played by Tony Scotti).  Tony is a well-meaning if simple-minded guy who is married to a creepily overprotective sister (played by Lee Grant).  Eventually, it turns out that Tony has a neurological disease and he’s eventually checked into a sanitorium.  Penniless, Jennifer goes France and makes “art films.”  (In one of Valley of the Dolls’ better moments, we’re shown a clip of this “art film” and it turns out to be a pitch perfect satire of every single pretentious soft-core film to ever come out of Europe.)  Upon returning to America, Jennifer discovers that she has breast cancer and, declaring “All I’ve got is my body,” she commits suicide.

Though Sharon Tate gets considerably less screen time than her co-stars, she probably gives the strongest performance in this film.  Certainly, her story is the most emotionally effective (even if it’s hard not to feel that, as is typical of the films of both the 60s and today, Jennifer is being punished for taking off her clothes on camera).  Tate perfectly captures the insecurity that comes from being continually told that you have nothing more to offer beyond how you look.  In her first appearance, she’s wearing an outrageously large headdress.  “I feel a little top-heavy,” she says.  “You are a little top-heavy,” some guy replies while leering at her breasts.  If you doubt that Sharon Tate was a good actress, just watch her reaction.  She perfectly captures a pain that I personally know far too well.  Her subsequent suicide scene, which has the potential to be the most tasteless part of this film, is actually the most powerful and again, it’s because Tate plays the role perfectly.

(It’s been nearly four years since I lost my mom to breast cancer and I have to admit, I had a hard time watching the scenes where Jennifer discusses her diagnosis.  Tate gave a great performance here and it’s a shame that she’s been permanently linked in the public imagination with Charles Manson and the later accusations against her husband, Roman Polanski.  She had real talent.)

As poignant of Sharon Tate was in her role, the film’s fame (and infamy) ultimately rests with our third heroine, Neely O’Hara (played by Patty Duke in a performance that suggests that she was literally possessed during the filming).  Neely is a scrappy, aspiring singer who is fired from a broadway show when her singing threatens to upstage aging star Helen Lawson (played by Susan Hayward, who was brought in to replace Judy Garland).  Neely, however, refuses to let anything keep her  down and soon, she’s singing at a Cystic Fibrosis telethon and becoming a big star.  She marries her boyfriend Mel (played by Martin Milner, who grits his teeth and spits out every line) and moves to California where she soon becomes a big star and then finds herself hooked on “booze and dolls.”  (“I need a doll!” she insists on several occasions.) 

One reason the film’s 2nd hour is so much more fun than the first is because the film’s focus shifts from boring Anne to out-of-control Neely.  Increasingly temperamental and unstable, Neely soon starts to spend all of her time with dress designer Ted Casablanca (a great name, if nothing else.)  “You’re spending more time than necessary with that fag Ted Casablanca,” Mel tells her to which Neely replies, “Ted Casablanca’s no fag and I’m the dame who can prove it.”  This, of course, leads to a divorce and soon Neely is living with Mr. Casablanca who informs her, after he gets caught cheating, “You made me feel as if I was queer…that little whore makes me feel 9 feet tall.”

When Lyon and Anne attempt to force Neely to enter a sanitorium, she responds to running off to San Francisco where she enters a bar and shouts, “I’M NEELY O’HARA!” before then wandering down a sleazy street and ranting, “Boobies, boobies!  Nothing but boobies!  Who needs them!?”  Needless to say, this leads to her eventually overdosing and ending up in that sanitorium where she has a huge freak-out before singing a duet with Tony and resolving to get her life back in order.  This, naturally, leads to her getting released, having an affair with Lyon, and then returning to Broadway where, in the film’s most deliriously odd moment, she steals Helen Lawson’s wig and flushes it down a toilet.

Valley of the Dolls is, admittedly, a terrible film but it’s also a lot of fun and that’s largely because of Patty Duke’s berserk performance as Neely O’Hara.  Earlier, I said that Duke’s performance appears to suggest that she may have been possessed but, honestly, that barely begins to describe it.  Whereas Tate managed to find some truth in the film’s melodrama and Parkins gives a performance that suggests that the script put her in a coma, Duke attacks every inch of melodramatic dialogue, barking out her dialogue with all the ferocity of a yapping little chiuaua.  Duke gives a performance that is so completely and totally over-the-top that it’s hard not to respect her commitment to capturing every overheated, melodramatic moment.

I have to admit that one reason why I love this film is because I’m hoping that someday some enterprising director will remake it and cast me as Neely O’Hara.  Everytime I watch this film, I find myself thinking about how much it would be to respond to every petty annoyance by screeching out, “I’m NEELY O’HARA!”  Seriously, just think about it.  As a character, Neely is a talented, ambitious, emotional, unstable, immature, demanding, bratty, spoiled, and determined.  Sound like anyone whose film reviews you might have been reading recently?  From my previous experience as a community theater ingenue, I can assure you that I can deliver melodramatic dialogue with the best of them and, unlike Patty Duke in this film, I can actually dance.  Unfortunately, I can’t carry a tune to save my life but I’m thinking maybe they could bring in Kelly Clarkson to serve as my singing voice.  (Or maybe Jessica Simpson.  Did I ever mention that we both went to the same high school?  Though not at the same time, of course.) After all, if Patty Duke could be obviously dubbed, why not me?  I can just see myself now, wandering down some sleazy city street, singing to myself and declaring at the top of my lungs, “Ted Casablanca’s no fag and I’m the dame who can prove it!”  I know that Lindsay Lohan will probably insist that this is the role she was born to play, but seriously, who needs Linsday when you’ve got a Lisa?

Beyond the so-bad-that-its-good appeal of the film, Valley of the Dolls is a fascinating cultural artifact for the reasons that I previously hinted at while talking about the character of Anne Welles.  Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967 and, as such, it’s a perfect exhibit of an unstable time when Hollywood was unsure about whether it should embrace the “new morality” or if it should continue to recycle the same sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that had nearly bankrupted the big studios.  The result was several films that felt oddly schizophrenic in their approach and that is certainly the case with Mark Robson’s direction of Valley of the Dolls.  Whether it’s the way the film continually hints at nudity and sex while carefully not revealing too much or the way that random psychedelic sequences seem to suddenly appear on-screen, this is a movie that perfectly captures an uncertain film industry trying to figure out where it stands in a scary new world.

As always, I enjoyed watching this undeniably bad but just as undeniably compelling film.  Our readers chose well!  Thank you to everyone who voted and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this review almost as much I enjoyed writing it.

(Photograph by Erin Nicole Bowman)